In Memoriam Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan

      February 18, 2009 10:44

      Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, the bulwark of Catholicism in Korea who served as a beacon of human rights and democracy during every crisis in the country's modern history, died on Monday evening at the age of 87.

      Cardinal Kim spent his whole life standing by the poor, the sick and those condemned to death, consoling their pains and suffering and sharing their happiness. He passed away with the words "Thank you" and donated his eyes to the blind.

      In 1969, at the age of 47, he became the world's youngest cardinal. He left us as the world's oldest. As demonstrated by his motto, "Pro vobis et pro multis" (For you and for many), Cardinal Kim devoted himself to tearing down the walls of the Catholic church in Korea, moving the church closer to the people and building a society within the guidance of the church.

      Under his leadership, the number of Catholics in Korea rose from 800,000 to 2.5 million. It was under his watch that Pope John Paul II visited Korea to canonize 103 Korean martyrs, with Korea hosting the International Eucharistic Congress and opening a new era for the country's Catholic Church by supporting missionary work overseas and aiding North Koreans.

      We are feeling such a sense of loss upon learning of his death because he was such a stout pillar in our lives. He was more than just a religious leader. He embraced the pains of our society as his own. Through each political crisis that Korea suffered, from military coups to dictatorships, Cardinal Kim voiced the yearning for democracy felt by Koreans whose mouths were forced shut by authoritarian governments.

      When former president Park Chung-hee announced a national state of emergency in 1971, Cardinal Kim stood by the public like an Old Testament prophet. During a televised Christmas mass, he said the president's actions would shatter the public's unity with the government and harm peace in the country.

      During the Gwangju pro-democracy movement in 1980, Cardinal Kim issued a statement urging the lifting of martial law and the punishment of those responsible for massacring demonstrators. He said that the vicious cycle of violence would only repeat itself if the government imposes silence through force and maintains order by meting out death.

      Cardinal Kim protected demonstrators seeking refuge at Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral during nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in June of 1987. When police were close to raiding the cathedral, he blocked their entry with his arms spread open, warning them that they would have to take him away first.

      It wasn't his indomitable ideology that gave Cardinal Kim the strength to stand up to dictatorship. Rather, it was his belief that the dignity of the human being must be respected at all times. Also known as the "grandfather of Hyehwa-dong," Cardinal Kim used to enjoy singing popular Korean songs and constantly questioned whether his life was in union with his religious beliefs. One time, he visited a neighborhood in Siheung, Gyeonggi Province, inhabited by evicted tenants who had prepared a room for him and asked him to spend the night with them. Cardinal Kim confessed that he could not accept their offer, because the bathroom those tenants shared was too uncomfortable.

      That is how candid and honest he was. Nobody accused him of religion meddling in politics when he pointed toward democracy during periods of military dictatorship and talked about his dream of Korea embracing politics that respects human beings. Cardinal Kim lived a life of humility, shunning being portrayed as the sole apostle of justice, and he was wary of being viewed as the lone judge of conscience.

      We will always miss Cardinal Kim. And the best way to remember the cardinal will be to create a fair and just society that no longer requires the role of somebody like him.
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